Title: Conversations with Friends (2017)
Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Read: 20th – 22nd June 2017
Genre: contemporary; adult
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Set in modern-day Dublin, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends ostensibly tells the tale of Frances and Bobbi, ex-girlfriends and spoken word poets who find themselves befriending photographer/journalist Melissa and her actor husband Nick and setting in motion a chain of events as they become embroiled with the couple’s social lives and they with theirs. If you like books that are focused on the complicated relationships people can become entangled in, despite their better judgment, then Conversations with Friends is one for you.
Frances, Bobbi, Nick and Melissa ask each other endless questions. As their relationships unfold, in person and online, they discuss sex and friendship, art and literature, politics and gender, and, of course, one another. Twenty-one-year-old Frances is at the heart of it all, bringing us this tale of a complex ménage-à-quatre and her affair with Nick, an older married man. You can read Conversations with Friends as a romantic comedy, or you can read it as a feminist text. You can read it as a book about infidelity, about the pleasures and difficulties of intimacy, or about how our minds think about our bodies. However you choose to read it, it is an unforgettable novel about the possibility of love. (Synopsis taken from publisher’s website)
Title: A Room with a View (1908)
Author: E.M. Forster
Publisher: Penguin English Library
Read: 19th April – 3rd May 2017
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
A Room with a View is a 20th-century classic that begins in sun-soaked Florence before retiring to the Edwardian English countryside and proved to be a rather pleasant surprise for yours truly, quite possibly because I had no expectations for this book and did not know a single thing about it until I opened the first page.
“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice”
Exploring Italy with her overbearing spinster cousin/chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy Honeychurch has her middle-class and thus far limited view of the world challenged by the sights and (yes) the views she sees, not all of them quite so picturesque or pleasant. Whilst staying at the Pension Betolini in Florence, Lucy is thrown into the paths of a cast of comically presented characters: a pair of (frankly annoying) clergyman, Mr Beebe and the interfering Mr Eager; adventurous and outspoken novelist Eleanor Lavish; Mr Emerson who might just be (whisper it in case they hear you) a socialist; and his romantic and free-thinking son George. That is, until a return to England means a return to Lucy’s home in Surrey and a return to the rigid, claustrophobic middle-class country life she knows, complete with pretentious fiancee Cecil Vyse. With Lucy’s world view latterly coloured by all that she has experienced in Italy, Forster’s A Room with a View reads part romance and part satire of the Edwardian England it so shrewdly presents.
Title: A Feast for Crows (2005)
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Read: 19th April – 3rd May 2017
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
In this fourth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, the sheer weight of political machinations and the implications of several key deaths in Westeros slowly begin to take their toll on the houses of the kingdom as a more subdued, but nonetheless bloody, war dawns just as it seems the War of the Five Kings is coming to an end.
“History is a wheel, for the nature of man is fundamentally unchanging.
What has happened before will perforce happen again.”
Warning; if you have not read the first three books in the series, probably don’t read this review as the first section synopsis alone will spoil the events of the previous books. You have been warned.
Title: American Gods (2001)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Read: 4th – 10th May 2017
Genre: fantasy; mythology; urban fantasy
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
In this wacky and wonderful book, Neil Gaiman draws on a wealth of cultures and mythologies in order to create an engrossing and bizarrely original take on the gods of old. Utterly fantastical and surreal, once disbelief is suspended, this proves to be one hell of a ride.
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”
Set in a modern-day United States, American Gods ostensibly tells the story of Shadow Moon, a rather taciturn man about to be released from prison owing to the sudden death of his wife, Laura. But Laura doesn’t stay as dead as she should do, and that’s not the only spooky event in Shadow’s life once he emerges from prison as a free man. Whilst on a plane journey home, he gets to talking to mysterious passenger, Mr Wednesday, and ends up (begrudgingly) working for him. Premised on the idea that gods only continue to exist because of people’s belief in them, the once-powerful “old gods”, brought to the US by the immigrants who settled there, find themselves diminished in the face of people’s faith towards the “new gods”, figures relating to America’s obsession with media, celebrity, and technology. Part satire of the all American road trip novel, part mythological retelling, familiar and less familiar deities pop into the story with aplomb as Wednesday (cough Odin cough) and Shadow try to marshall these forgotten “old gods” to rise up against the “new gods” society now worships instead.
Title: The Name of the Wind (2007)
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Read: 7th – 15th April 2017
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is the first book in the evocatively named The Kingkiller Chronicles, a sure-to-be-epic fantasy series which mimics the storytelling tradition of oral myths and legends. Framed through the device of a Chronicler writing down the deeds as recounted by the enigmatic protagonist, Kvothe, The Name of the Wind is a story which slowly but surely draws you into its world and magic until you are hooked without realising how on earth you got there. And then you realise: here be dragons.
‘Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.’ (Synopsis from Goodreads)
Title: Hard Times (1854)
Author: Charles Dickens
Read: 29th March- 4th April
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Published in 1854, Hard Times is one of Charles Dickens’ shortest novels and presents a pretty damning indictment of mid 19th-century industrial society, taking a swipe at the social and political philosophies of Bentham and Mill, but ultimately failing to deliver an engaging or cohesive plot that would match the opening chapter’s brilliance.
“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”
Hard Times tells the story of Coketown, a fictional 19th-century Northern industrial town which plays home to a host of polluting factories and their downtrodden employees, all overseen by factory owner Josiah Bounderby and his friend and Utilitarian Thomas Gradgrind, the schoolmaster who seeks to stamp out any sense of imagination or Fancy from the town’s schoolchildren. On the outskirts of the town cavorts Mr Sleary’s circus, a troupe of performers whose antics could provide a nice sense of distraction for the downtrodden ranks of Coketown’s population.
Title: The Song Rising (2017)
Author: Samantha Shannon
Read: 19th – 25th February
Genre: fantasy; dystopian
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The third book in Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season series, The Song Rising sees Paige and her not-so-merry band of clairvoyants venture outside of the Scion-controlled environs of London’s streets and into a much darker and deadlier world. The stakes are raised, the risks are higher, and the outcome is a riveting and heart-breaking addition to this ongoing dystopian/fantasy series.
“War has often been called a game, with good reason.
Both have combatants. Both have sides. Both carry the risk of losing.”
Immediately following on from the shock cliffhanger of the second book in the series, The Song Rising marks the third outing of dreamwalker Paige Mahoney and her voyant friends and foes alike. Having battled against the other cohorts in the scrimmage in The Mime Order, Paige is now crowned Underqueen and rules over the criminal underworld of London. However, though her victory means she can finally spread the truth about Scion and its Rephaim masters, with it comes the unenviable task of uniting the fractured gangs into a community that is able to survive the oppression it faces on a daily basis. To be a clairvoyant is treason and so every member of the Mime Order commits a crime by simply existing.
Title: Wishing for Birds (2016)
Author: Elisabeth Hewer
Read: 21st January 2017
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
In this breath-takingly beautiful debut collection, Elisabeth Hewer displays a sense of lyricism and astuteness that make her poetry sing.
“Rebellion sits well on you
like a red coat
or the gilt gold burnish of youth”
Collecting together sixty poems, Wishing For Birds covers topics that range from the most personal and individual to the national and social, displaying in the process Hewer’s keen grasp of how to introduce and weave (at times, unusual) imagery into the “narrative” of her poems. Some of her poems look outwards, to the world around her, others look inwards, and others look back to the past. Some poems span a mere couple of lines, some are longer, but all are penned in a distinct voice which encapsulates Hewer’s spirit – the girl who (it seems) wishes for birds.
Title: The Tearling trilogy:
The Queen of the Tearling (2014)
The Invasion of the Tearling (2015)
The Fate of the Tearling (2016)
Author: Erika Johansen
Read: 1st-6th Feb | 6th-11th Feb | 11th-19th Feb
Genre: fantasy; dystopian; young-adult
Rating: 5/5 | 4/5 | 3.75/5
Spanning three books, Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy tells the story of Kelsea Glynn, the exiled Queen of the Tearling who has been raised in secret for many years in order to protect her and her family’s claim to the crown of the kingdom. The land of Tearling represents a utopian project – the mastermind behind it was William Tear, a man who believed in a socialist system which he thought would lead to a more just and happy society, having experienced quite the opposite in America. In many ways, Tearling treads the boundary between fantasy and dystopian, for William Tear’s utopian society is (as is often the case) rarely that simple. As someone who enjoys exploring the political and social ramifications of how dystopias happen as opposed to the actual dystopia itself, the Tearling books were right up my alley, and might just be up yours too.
“The future was only disasters of the past, waiting to happen anew.”
Title: We Should All Be Feminists (2014)
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Read: 24th-26th February 2017
Genre: non-fiction; feminism
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
We Should All Be Feminists is a short, adapted essay of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on the subject of twenty-first century feminism, gender, sexuality, and her own experiences as a Nigerian woman, that forces readers to confront issues of everyday sexism and prejudice that are so deeply ingrained in modern society that they aren’t even immediately apparent as worthy of examination. At several points in this short book, I found myself stopping to reconsider the ways I thought about myself or about other women and checking that initial, socially-ingrained knee-jerk response – all of this, despite the fact that my own life is very different to Adichie’s. That is the mark of a very good TED talk and, indeed, book.
“My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.
All of us, women and men, must do better.”
Coming in at just under 70 pages, Adichie’s text is short and succinct but nonetheless packs a punch for it. She eloquently and anecdotally charts her own experiences as a young woman alongside those of her friends and family, using these examples to illustrate that the problem (if we may call it that) of sexism and discrimination is rarely ever solely down to the natural inclination of the person in question but rather how the person was raised, how they were conditioned to think, and what values they were taught by their parents and, indeed, society itself. Culture is people and people are culture though, so it is only by striving to be better people that we can affect change.